Today’s report begins with a bit of Paddy Ashdown-style hat-eating. The most promising news out of Carrow Road this week was that, despite my prediction at the end of my last report, Marquinhos had had his red card overturned and was available for the Stoke game.
Given his less-than-stellar performance against Huddersfield, you can see that good news is a rare commodity right now.
Regrettably, with the exception of Gunn Junior’s performance, I have none to add.
David Wagner was obviously mindful of the way that teams have recently targeted City’s marauding full-backs, and of Stoke’s recent run of good form. He set City up in an old-fashioned 4-4-2 and set out to achieve a point away from home.
Max Aarons was employed as a right winger, with Lungi Sorensen dropping into right back. Christos Tzolis came in on the left with Teemu Pukki and Josh Sargent paired up front.
The opening 10 minutes was characterized by a complete lack of pattern to the game. It was scrappy. It was messy. There was more head tennis than football.
Somehow, in these opening skirmishes, City fashioned their best chance of the match, Tzolis playing Sargent through one on one with the keeper. Somehow he seemed to get the ball stuck under his feet and his final effort was lame.
From then on, City fell apart. Instead of the high press that we are used to, City dropped off into their own half and invited Stoke onto them. For a side woefully lacking in pace going forward, it seems optimistic at best to think that the plan was as simple as to hit Stoke on the break.
City became penned in their own half, in their own area even. Every time they got a ball away from the back four, the recipient meekly surrendered possession back to the home side.
Stoke began to pepper the City area with a series of dangerous crosses. Sorensen was having a torrid time at right back. On the other side, Dimi Giannoulis was doing a little better with some good defending and tackling, but even so, the crosses continued.
After 20 minutes, the Stoke pressure was peaking. They forced three corners in succession, the run only being broken by a weak header straight at Gunn.
A few minutes later another cross from the Stoke right. This one fell to Smallbone and his shot brought a sharp diving save from Gunn.
Then another dipping cross, Campbell on hand at the far post drawing another good stop from the new Scottish international.
When City did win the ball, they conspired to find new ways to give it back – Grant Hanley nearly gifting a chance with a blind header to Gunn who was quicker to react than the striker.
On the half-hour, City finally broke out of their own half, but Aarons’ ball wide to Sargent was too heavy and ran out for a goal kick.
City, having weathered the storm, began to get a toehold on the midfield and started retaining and winning the ball. Tzolis was fouled on halfway. City worked the ball wide to Pukki, his cross was blocked but he got it to Gabriel Sara, who shielded it well with his back to goal before Kenny McLean hit a left-foot shot just wide.
Then Ben Gibson played a superb through ball to Sara but with the angles closing, he could only hit weakly at the keeper.
Sara took a turn next, winning the ball and laying it to Pukki. An on-form Goat would have shot first time but he delayed, eventually cutting the ball back to Sargent. The ball was just behind the American and he managed a somewhat awkward shot as a result, which was blocked.
Finally, Sargent did well in the middle of the park and laid it wide to Aarons. His cross was met by the head of Tzolis and deflected behind for a corner.
At half-time, Wagner made a switch. Andy Omobamidele coming in for Sorensen in an effort to stiffen the defence and free up Aarons to attack more.
It nearly paid off. Aarons made a great run down the right, battling determinedly and eventually skipping clear with the ball. His cross to Pukki was not initially controlled well by the Finn and his shot was well wide as a result.
The rest of the second half then fell into a predictable and repetitive pattern.
Stoke attack. Cross comes in – Gunn saves. Varying from the routine to the excellent. He was most stretched by a cheeky lob by Campbell that he was forced to tip over.
Then City would play out from the back.
If Gunn rolled it out, play progressed maybe up to halfway before City inevitably lost possession.
If he kicked it, and Sargent won it, his flick went straight to Bonham in the Stoke goal.
If he kicked it, and Sargent didn’t win it, Stoke picked up the loose ball and the attack cycle began again.
On the rare occasion, City forced a set piece, Stoke had had the temerity to watch the Millwall highlights and were aware of what was coming. They were first to every corner, and almost every free kick was easily claimed by Bonham.
Giannoulis went off – the after-effects of a brutal Pearson tackle that earned him a yellow, and bizarrely earned Dimi the derision of the home crowd for the remainder of the game.
Marquinhos and Marcelino Nunez also joined the fray but it made no difference. City could still be out there now and they wouldn’t have scored.
So what did we learn? Or re-learn. That McLean and Sara aren’t the right players for a flat two in a 4-4-2? Neither were influential. That Tzolis isn’t a winger? That City desperately lack a creative spark?
Yes, City are shorn of the creative abilities of Dowell, so influential in Wagner’s early games, and of the raw pace of Hernandez. But surely they can do better than this. This was like watching Dean Smith all over again.
Let’s pray that the international break brings good news from the treatment room. The good news of a far better quality than this week brought.
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